Myanmar: Frustration In The Forbidden Zone


October 19, 2015: The latest round of peace talks with the tribal rebels in the north have failed for several reasons. This time there is the additional problem that no one wants to agree to anything before the outcome of the November 8 th elections are known. In addition there are the usual problems mainly involving the various tribal rebel groups’ inability to agree on what terms to accept from the government. Thus some rebels are willing to settle for less than others. This happens a lot and the army sees it as a major advantage as the tribal rebels are a lot easier to deal with if they are not united. Another reason for delays in a new peace deal is that in some parts of the north (like Shan and Kachin states) the fighting is still going on and is not expected to end no matter who wins the November election.

Even if the winner of the November election is someone who can curb the power of the military (especially in the north), that new government won’t take power until March 2016. One thing that is unlikely to change is the current dominance of the government by ethnic Burmese (Burman) people at the expense of the third of the population consisting of minorities. The army always played on this during the half century the military government was in power. Even after elections were resumed in 2008 the army still had allies in the form of militant Buddhist nationalists. Another thing that unites and divides the country is religion. Some 80 percent of Burmese are Buddhists, including many of the rebellious tribes in the north. A third of the non-Buddhists are Christians (mainly in the tribal north) and about 30 percent are Hindu. The ethnic Burmese are most hostile towards Moslems, who make up only about four percent of the population (and less than ten percent of the minorities). Until 2012 about half the Moslems were ethnic Bengalis (Rohingya) who until the 1980s were considered Burmese citizens. That changed after an elected government took power in 2011 and since 2012 nearly a quarter of the million Rohingya are believed to have fled Burma to escape the growing violence of radical Buddhist Burmese nationalists.

Meanwhile the army retains a lot of political power despite being hated by most Burmese. While the commander of the army insists that the military will respect the outcome of the November elections everyone believes that this “respect” has limits. The generals say they would accept a new government that wanted to curb the power of the military. This is partly in response to growing domestic and foreign pressure on the military to give up the veto power it has under the 2008 constitution. The generals have used this veto to “protect their interests.” This has included blocking “hostile” (anti-military) candidates from running for president or attempts by parliament to curb military power. This is all about how the 2008 constitution that guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament and requires 75 percent of the votes in parliament to get the constitution changed. Many of the generals are reluctant to allow any changes to this because so many Burmese are still angry at the decades of bad behavior by the military governments. Without some control over the government the generals who ran the military dictatorship (and many of their subordinates) could be prosecuted for their crimes. The generals are under a lot of pressure over the constitutional reform issue. Burmese businessmen and foreign investors also back a reduction of military control, mainly because the military is the main source of the widespread corruption that cripples the economy.

The Burmese Army has long been at the center of most illegal economic activity. Some researchers believe that at least $20 billion has been illegally moved out of Burma during the fifty years of military rule and much more stayed in the country. Almost all of that was military personnel or their gangster and commercial allies. Military families still control a lot of the economy and most of the wealthy families in Burma have a military connection. The illegal cash leaving amounted (on average) to about six percent of GDP. The military may have surrendered much of their political power, but they are hanging on to their considerable personal wealth.

The violence on the Indian border has had an unexpected side effect in that it has led to more arrests of drug smugglers and seizure of the drugs. The most common drug seized is methamphetamine tablets. Called "yaba" ("crazy drug") this has become increasingly popular in the region and northern Burma is the major source.

Lately many Indian rebels have been staying out of their usual hideouts on the Burmese side of the Indian border. That’s only because in mid-2014 the Burmese army began actively seeking out and attacking the camps of Indian rebels. Often the rebels detect the approach of the soldiers and flee back into India. There the Indian Army is more active in going after the rebels. Because of a recent agreement, India and Burma are sharing intelligence on armed groups near their mutual border. This cooperation is not uniform all along the border. India believes that in one area at least two Indian rebel camps had been established three and five kilometers inside Burma and local Burmese troops were not cooperating. Apparently bribes, threats or whatever had been used to get some of the cooperation the Indian rebels long enjoyed. India is demanding that the Burmese high command act. So far there has been no action on this matter.

October 16, 2015: In the north (Shan state) a week of fighting between the army and the SSA-N tribal rebels resulted in the rebels retreating from a key river town. The army had outmaneuvered the rebels and threatened to surround them.

October 15, 2015: In the north the government signed another peace treaty with eight tribal rebel groups. Not signing were several other groups, especially the TNLA (Taang National Liberation Army), KIA (Kachin Independence Army), Kokang, SSA-N and Arakan Army which are currently fighting the army.

October 12, 2015: In the north (Shan state) fighting broke out (in five different areas) between TNLA rebels and soldiers. There have been ten clashes between TNLA and the army so far this month compared to 18 for all of September.

October 10, 2015: The army began another offensive against TNLA tribal rebels in the north.

October 9, 2015: The government is openly accusing China of interfering with efforts to negotiate a peace deal with the rebellious northern tribes. It’s never been a secret that many of these tribes (especially the Wa) are ethnic Chinese who long ago fled the Chinese empire and ended up in what is now northern Burma. This area was never part of “Burma” until the British made it so when they set Burma free from colonial rule after World War II. These tribal areas were long a “forbidden zone” where each of the many tribes ruled their own small bit of territory and none of the neighboring governments (Chinese, Thai, Indian) were interested in trying to absorb this patch of nowhere populated by tribes that were very hostile to outsiders. Burma accuses China of advising some tribes to stay away from any peace deal in return for economic aid (often in the form of ignoring smuggling and other illegal activities) and sanctuary (as most of the tribes involved lived on the border). China denied interfering but this sort of interference is right out of the ancient Chinese diplomatic playbook. China is unhappy with Burma making economic deals with non-Chinese foreigners (especially India and the West) and is building a traditional form of influence and leverage in the north.

September 23, 2015: In the north (Shan State) fighting broke out between the army and KIA rebels.

September 21, 2015: The Chinese Defense Minister visited Burma and made it clear that Burma had to restore order on its border with China or there would be consequences. China is a major investor in Burma, especially large economic projects in northern Burma. But Chinese are also involved in a lot illegal activity in northern Burma, which adds to the anger of tribal rebels up there and Burmese in general.




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